With junior hockey slots beginning to fill, a pair of local 2004 forwards ensured themselves a place to play recently, as Ryan Rubic and Brayden Lafrance both inked on with the Espanola Express of the NOJHL.
Despite having game play slashed to next to nothing in 2020-2021, Rubic is comfortable that he will be able to hit the ice running (or skating, I suppose) come the start of the junior season in September.
"I found that last year was one of my best years for hockey," said Rubic. "We weren't playing games as much, but we were always practicing. We had pretty much a normal practice schedule, so I focused on moving better with the puck and getting my shot a little bit better."
"I like having a quick release," he added. "It doesn't matter much what position I'm in, getting the shot off nice and hard is key."
Lafrance, for his part, could see a little more of the double edged sword that was the season that was heavily impacted by COVID.
"It was tough playing only a couple of games last year after having our season cut short in our minor midget year too," said Lafrance. "But I found working out and training just the same, still pretty easy to motivate myself."
"It was tough to not be one the ice the past couple of months," he added. "That's the only tough part. Training and running and doing workouts is all the same."
Like Rubic, Lafrance sees the ability to create offensive zone opportunities as likely one of the biggest challenges he will face in making the jump from the Great North Midget Hockey League.
"I was really working on trying to get more open for my shots, finding more open spaces to get my shot away, working harder in the corners and winning my battles, skating faster when I have the puck, always finding opportunities to shoot."
Thankfully, he has also prided himself on other aspects of the game, areas where his skill-set should prove especially valuable. "I've been a big PK guy for a long time, that's where I play a lot - blocking shots, working hard, winning battles, getting pucks out," said Lafrance.
"I would be happy if I could be a player that the coach can rely on."
Rubic is one of the countless second generation NOJHLers, a connection that did not hurt in the least, in terms of helping to open this door. "My father goes way back with the GM and they ran into each other in Espanola, so they reached out to me," he said.
"He (father - Robin) was more of a fighter, so we're a little bit different. I play wit that edge, but I think I'm a faster player."
Truth be told, Ryan is, generally speaking, a fairly gifted all around athlete, also showing promise in football despite only having suited up in a half dozen games to date.
"If things ever get slow for hockey, if that door closes, I'm definitely interested in playing football," he said. "I joined two games into the (high school) season and had to learn the playbook," said the 6'1" member of the Lively Hawks.
"I always had guys telling me what to do if I wasn't sure, but I picked it up after a couple of weeks."
And while learning the hockey playbook shouldn't be nearly as daunting a task, Lafrance knows that there is a bit of catching up still to be done. "The hardest part is just getting back on the ice," he stated. "It's a little tiring at the start."
"Once you get going, you start to get a feel for it."
And that is something that Lafrance and so many others are looking forward to, like a child on Christmas morning.
"I was really hoping to play in the NOJHL," said Lafrance. "I'm hoping to go the school route, so that's where I really wanted to play."